Adventures in Greece: Helios, Sparta, and The Land Of The Gods

On Saturday of this past week I traveled to Gythio, the port city of Sparta. Gythio is an integral part of the Mani region, a part of larger Lakonia, which in Classical times was famed for the militaristic brutality of the Spartan warriors. “Come home with your shield or on it,” is the famous saying attributed to the farewell women would say to their husbands and fathers as they marched off to war, and in some ways, the phrase still applies to the tough mentality of the men and women who live in Lakonia.

Gythio, where we spent four days, is a town with a long mythological history, though it was never as big or famous as the cities of Athens, Sparta, Corinth, Delphi, and so on. Gythio means ‘Land of the Gods’ – theo is the root of “god” and geo or gyo approximates to “land” or “earth” – and it gets its name because Apollo commanded Hercules to found a city in penance for his sins (which were many, apparently). Hercules and Apollo decided that since Sparta lacked a port, they would locate the new city by the sea as a port for Sparta, and the sun-god Apollo blessed it so profoundly that Gythio gets more sun than almost any other spot Europe.

Sparta, and the area surrounding, has been settled since prehistoric times. While I was there we visited the Menelaion, a site of an ancient temple to Menelaus and Helen of Troy, erected by the Spartans of classical times. Helen, “the face that launched a thousand ships,” the woman whose abduction by Paris set off the Trojan war of the Homeric epic, has a more complicated history than that of a trophy to be won by Menelaus and his competitors. Before the advent of Mycenean mythology, Helen was a fertility goddess who some archaologists believe was brought to Greece via Turkey. She had a mythology of her own, much of which has been lost to time.

A view of the Menelaion, in all its crumbled glory. I’d guess it’s about twenty to twenty-five feet high and maybe fifty on all sides.

When we got off the bus in Sparta, we grabbed a taxi driver and convinced him, reluctantly, to take us to the Menelaion. At the top of a long, hot, dusty walk was this magnificent ruin, decorated by strange flowers and overgrown weeds.  Though I personally could find no evidence of any excavation done except around the site of the temple itself, archaeologists speculate that it was the site of a large Mycenean settlement. I wondered what they would find – if anything – were they to dig deeper beneath the hilltop and surrounding area.

There were also a number of broken beer bottles, bottle caps, used tissues, food wrappers, and other trash hanging around. We were the only visitors to the site, and we were there at least an hour. There were no signs or informational panels, no reconstructions or images or explanations as to what we were looking at. To even find any information about this site outside of what our guidebook contained (which was little enough) I had to go to a German wikipedia article and use Google Translate to get a one-paragraph article about the history of the temple. The whole thing – the trash, the paucity of information and of explanation, the lack of any evident site maintenance – convinced me that despite the fact that this seemed to me an incredibly important archaeological site, no one seemed to care.

A statue of Leonidas, the famous Greek warrior who led the Spartans into battle against the Persians at Thermopylae with only three hundred soldiers at his back. The statue has been crudely vandalized.
A statue of Leonidas, the famous Greek warrior who led the Spartans into battle against the Persians at Thermopylae with only three hundred soldiers at his back. The statue has been crudely vandalized.

This, sadly, is a typical attitude in Greece. There isn’t much, if any, respect for the great Classical traditions that we in America revere. To the contrary, the Greeks often seem impatient and disdainful when confronted with tourists who want to visit these old sites. It’s a sentiment I can understand, albeit reluctantly. No one goes to visit Greece to see the modern buildings, the new city of Athens, or the cultural achievements of modern Greece. No one cares about the lives of modern Greeks, how they live, or what they’ve created. We come instead to sunbathe on the islands or to revisit a history long dead and gone. When the entire rest of the world deems your current culture unimportant and chooses to focus only on a history which is no longer relevant to you personally, it would be hard not to get tired of being constantly relegated to the past.

The view over the city of Sparta and the imposing mountains from the top of the Menelaion.
The view over the city of Sparta and the imposing mountains from the top of the Menelaion.

Though the Greeks may be tired of being shoved back into a world dead and gone, I will never tire of visiting these marvelous sites. The Greeks gave us some of the best stories, both historical and mythological, of our modern times, and seeing the remnants of those stories played out before me will always be an inspiration both as a writer and as an individual. I’ve always loved history, and when I was a child I pored incessantly over an illustrated book of Greek mythology the way some kids watch cartoons. I believe strongly that the stories from the past help make the present society a better one. They help us grow as individuals and as a culture. As writers, they provide inspiration for new stories and new worlds.  And while I don’t blame the Greeks for trying to move beyond the past and create a new world for themselves, I think it’s important to keep both past and future in perspective as we try to create a better present. I hope that one day these monuments will be better cared for; I also hope that one day, Greece will again be recognized for cultural contributions to the present world, and not just to the past.

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